The Kings Observatory in Old Deer Park at Richmond stands hidden. Unless you have visited the Royal Mid-Surrey golf course, you may not even know it exists.
George III was fascinated by science, conducting many experiments himself. His passion for astronomy developed in childhood when tutored by the scientist and astronomer Dr Stephen Demainbray. In 1768, whilst planning a new palace at Richmond, the King asked the royal architect William Chambers to build him an observatory so he could to watch the transit of Venus across the sun, predicted to occur on 3rd June 1769. Chambers designed a small but perfectly proportioned villa with octagonal rooms and a cupola to house the observatory.
Three obelisks built to mark meridian points were used for calculating time and Kew Observatory was used to set the Standard London Time until responsibility was eventually passed to the Greenwich Observatory.
The King’s tutor Dr Stephen Demainbray was the observatory’s first superintendent who was succeeded by his son Reverend Demainbray on his death in 1782. The Reverend remained in his position for 60 years. under him was a resident curator. who remained on site.
A strange and distressing incident occurred at the Observatory in 1793 – a man by the name of Stroud was found crushed to death by an iron vice in the Observatory’s workroom. Coroners found at the time his death to be accidental. The curator at the time was a Mr John Little. He was later tried, convicted and hanged for murdering two Richmond residents to whom he owed money. The suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of a man found at Little’s place of work, just two years earlier, led many to believe him guilty of that crime too.
Remaining in Royal ownership until the 1840s The Kew Observatory was deemed too expensive to maintain. It was passed to several National Institutions, initially, the British Association, then the Royal Society.
In 1900 the Royal Society and the British Association persuaded the government to establish a National Physical Laboratory. Originally intended to be based at the Old Deer Park, a local uproar ensued over the requirement of an extra 15 for development of the site. A new location at Teddington was found for the laboratory, where it still resides today.
Kew Observatory remained one of the main inputs for forecasting weather until the electrification of the railway caused interference.
During the Second World War, it became integral in the fight against the enemies air attack.
The Metrological Office vacated in 1980 after which the building and small area of land were offered for commercial leasing. In 2014 planning was approved for it to be converted into a single-family dwelling.
Several of the rooms and Observatory are open for public viewing during September each year.